Are Prisons the Answer?

By Colin McGregor


That’s what it cost, in today’s numbers, to keep me in jail for 29 years. I learned that while watching Télé-Québec’s TV show Nos années 20 hosted by the Québec journalist Patrick Lagacé the other day. He had a panel discussion with journalist and author Michel Jean, social worker and co-founder of the Hoodstock social forum Will Prosper; and criminologist Audrey Monette.

The topic: should we abolish jails?

Patrick Lagacé began by stating that prisons are the best school for crime and often push prisoners to reoffend. There are those who want to see alternatives to prison, he said, but each time there is a tragedy we want the guilty party to go to prison.

Who is in prison? Audrey Monette pointed out that the majority of prisoners come from marginal groups: racial minorities, the poor, those with mental health issues, people who’ve experienced a lot of trauma in their lives (especially as children), addicts and alcoholics…

 In Canada, Michel Jean said, 7% of the population are indigenous, but they make up 35% of the prison population. Another study cited during the program (episode 11 of season 1 of Nos années 20) stated that 55% of provincial jail prisoners (serving a sentence of less than two years) reoffend.

Will Prosper offered that there are alternatives to prison around the world. In New Zealand, rather than go to jail, many Maori offenders are brought back into their community, supported, and slowly reintegrated back into society. They find out what the offender’s goals are in life, and try to work towards those. Even in Texas, Prosper said, officials are coming to realize that jail is too expensive to upkeep, and that rehabilitation programs are desirable.

Monette argued that if society took 10% of what it spends on coercive force (police, prisons) and poured it into tried and tested prevention programs, the criminality rate could decrease by 50% over a 5 to 10 year period. She argued that prisons don’t make society safer, they are expensive, they don’t necessarily give victims a sense of justice, and they increase the risk of ex-cons reoffending. Though there have to be people set aside from society, it would be better to spend more on rehabilitation and other programs behind bars, to make a person’s time in jail less of a waste.

Basic Math

Indeed, I got to the amount at the top of this article by taking the money Prosper says it costs to keep a man in a Canadian federal prison for one year ($130,000) and multiplying it by 29, the number of years I was in prison. He also said that it costs $200,000 a year to keep a woman behind federal prison bars in Canada.

Jail has an important symbolic role, Monette pointed out. It shows what happens when we commit a crime. It deters people from breaking the law. I would add that jail is unpleasant just so it does not become a refuge for those who want to get out of the cold in winter, or are too lazy to fix their own food.

There are programs in prison, and schools, and psychologists, but they are woefully underfunded and often not available to all who want or need them. There is also sometimes peer pressure to avoid reforming from other prisoners, especially at the higher security levels. There are a lot of people trapped in prison who would be just fine if you let them out tomorrow.

Is there any way to be absolutely certain that a man or a woman who leaves prison will or will not reoffend? We can load the dice all we want, but sometimes no one knows precisely what lurks inside a human heart, for good or for bad.

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